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Dot-to-Dot, Oregon Sid Miller

Ooligan Press Portland State University Portland, Oregon

Dot-to-Dot, Oregon © 2009 by Sid Miller All rights reserved. ISBN13: 978-1-932010-29-9 No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Cover Art and Design by Rebecca “Ruji” Chapnik Interior Design by Marie Miller Type is set in Aptifer Slab and DIN Condensed Ooligan Press Department of English Portland State University P.O. Box 751 Portland, OR 97207-0751 Printed in the United States of America by Lightning Source. Poems in this book have previously appeared in other publications: Portland Review: Albany, Seaside The Oregonian: Oregon Dunes Caffeine Destiny: Veneta, Monmouth High Desert Journal: Crater Lake Salt River Review: Pendleton New Works Review: Astoria Bad Light: Klamath Falls, Corvallis Softblow: Bandon, Hermiston, Prineville, Reedsport Two Review: Philomath Walking Bridges Using Poetry as a Compass: Portland Pif Magazine: Umatilla, Grants Pass The Dalles, McMinnville, Silverton, Molalla

For Claire and Athene, the best traveling companions a man could ever have.

Contents Introduction


Route 1 Pendleton 12 La Grande 13 Baker City 14 Nyssa 15 Burns 16 John Day 17 Shoetree 18 John Day Fossil Beds 19 Route 2 Scappoose 22 St. Helens 23 Astoria 24 Seaside 25 Lincoln City 26 Newport 29 Route 3  Albany 32 Corvallis 34 Philomath 35 Veneta 36 Eugene 37 Portland 38

Introduction Three points aligned at the moment of this book’s inception. The first: the absolute doldrums I found my writing to be in at the time. Every new poem seemed to visit the same themes, the same imagery, the same cadences. I hadn’t been excited about anything I had written for months, and I couldn’t imagine myself being excited about anything in the near future. The second: a conversation I had with one of my parents’ friends earlier that evening. I was down in California, visiting my family. A big group of family friends had been over and I was talking with someone about Oregon. They had just traveled around the state, which at the time I had called home for seven years, and when asked my opinions of several of the places he had visited, I had none—simply, because I had not been to most of the places that he mentioned. The third: Keith Richards. Later that night, after everyone had left, the dishes had been done and the dogs were all asleep, I lay in the bed of my childhood reading an article about the iconic guitarist of the Rolling Stones. I discovered that he only wrote songs in the chord of E. The hemming in of one’s creativity, he thought, was the best way to ensure achievement. That was the moment. By the time I fell asleep that night, the idea for this book was formed. While I had used travel in previous work, it had never been a theme; I would go somewhere, I would write something, and then I would go somewhere else and write something else. One poem had little or no relevance to any other. Now I had something with the potential for a unifying theme. It was unclear if I would find one while traveling the state—in fact, now that it’s over I’m not sure if I did or did not—but the idea of looking for one was exciting. When I got back to Portland, I went to Powell’s Books and got the biggest and best atlas of Oregon I could find. When I got home and opened it, facing pages of the whole state—all 98,466 square miles of it—I realized that this was going to take some thought. I knew I wanted to travel the state, but the questions became where to go and why to go there. My first concern was the number of places to visit. In order to assemble a full-length collection I knew I would need at least fifty poems. Once I had that number, I thought about the why. The best reason vii

I had for doing this project was to explore the state I now called home. I couldn’t base my travel, research, and writing solely on population. If I did, I wouldn’t have spent much time outside a sixty-mile radius of Portland. But I figured population had to play some part in my thinking. As I pored over the population chart in the atlas I counted sixty-three towns and cities in Oregon with over five thousand inhabitants. If I dismissed most of the suburbs of Portland and Eugene (sorry, suburbs) I would be somewhere around my desired number of poems. I also knew that I couldn’t be steadfast about any one rule. I was not going to limit myself. If a place truly piqued my interest and had a population of only one thousand (see “Joseph” and “Cave Junction”), I could bend the rules. Conversely, if I traveled to a bigger town or city and the timing was wrong and I couldn’t get a poem out of it, I wouldn’t force it (don’t see “Brookings”). A majority of the poems take place in the city center of each place. When driving the state, one sees that every town or city has a downtown exit off the freeway. I liked the idea of tying the poems together with yet another theme. This rule, too, was broken occasionally—in places like the Oregon Dunes and the John Day Fossil Beds. But I knew from the start that I didn’t want these poems to solely be descriptions of the places I went. Anyone could go to Pendleton, look around, and write down what they saw. I wanted the poems to be more personal. I wanted them to be about my reaction to the places, not the places themselves. I also thought it was important to incorporate what was going on in my life during the time of my visit (see “La Grande”). This last point was mainly affected by the two largest factors of this whole project: money and time. Money: this project was supported by the limited surplus of funds in my checking account. Time: I work full-time, run a press of my own, manage four properties, and am married. Money + Time = Unequal attention for each place. By the time I figured all this out, I was excited to begin. I started small: a day trip to Silverton and Molalla. It would be hard to find two towns that differed more. One is a quaint little town on a creek with nice restaurants, well-manicured parks, and antique shops; the other is a rural, working-class town with a few bars and a lot of hunting shops. This first trip ended up being a big lesson in what I wanted to achieve with these poems. I saw right away that I could not let my own biases get in the way of the poems, that I had to look for beauty in unexpected places—to focus on the wonder and less obvious details. viii

I’m not the sort of writer who is instantaneously inspired. I also have strict writing habits that include holing myself away from all human contact. For this project, I had to take a reporter’s approach; I took notes and pictures and then spent time in between trips to write first drafts and revisions. The project became more and more exciting. As each trip ended, plans for the next trip began. It was a joy to pore over the maps, decide on routes, and research the towns. This was especially true for the longer trips that took me to the corners of the state: to Enterprise and Nyssa, to Cave Junction and Ashland. On longer trips, I’d often stop in three or four places a day before spending the night at my final destination. This is where those two big factors, time and money, came into play. If these had not been issues, I would have spent a night in every place I traveled. Evenings often provided the highlights of the trips, as the towns revealed themselves after hours. It was also the best time to talk with locals. At some stops along the way, I couldn’t do more than walk around for an hour or so, shooting pictures, stopping for a coffee, and taking as many notes as possible. It’s hard for me to judge whether this ended up affecting the poems or not. I’m too close to the project to be able to see that for myself. But as I think back to all the places I went, Baker City—where I spent the night at the Geiser Grand Hotel—will live on as one of the absolute best nights, while the hour I spent walking the streets of Hermiston pales in comparison. I understand that this has very little to do with how great a place Baker City is compared to Hermiston, and everything to do with the amount of time spent in each place. All in all, it took me about a year and half to do all the travel necessary to complete the research for this book. I was writing all the while, but in the end it took about another year to write the last poem and work on the endless revisions that most of the poems underwent. I hoped to represent most corners of the state, and I think I did a fairly good job. I apologize to the towns and cities that didn’t get covered. I wish more than anything that I had the means to make this a collection of one hundred poems. For the majority of the trips, I was accompanied by my wife, Claire, and my old dog, Athene. We were met with kindness at every stop along the way. We met some wonderful people, stayed in some wonderful old hotels, ate a lot of really great food, and saw an amazing amount of beautiful places. To that point, the eastern part of the state ix

does not get its due. Before the trip, I had never been east of Bend. But now, having been in the Wallowa and Blue Mountains, on the John Day River, and most spots in between, I tell everyone who has not done so to get in their car and drive east. Most everyone has driven through the Gorge or stood on the coast and looked out at Haystack Rock, but until you head the other direction, you’re missing some of the best the state has to offer. The traveling was the joy, the writing the work. Because Oregon doesn’t have the population density of New York or California, I had very little margin with regards to making these poems work. In order to get to my magic number of fifty, I had to revise and revise and revise poems that, in prior mindsets, I would have given up on. I had a lot of help and would like to thank Bill Bogart, Marlys West, Julie Gamberg, Vandana Khanna, Michael Szporluk, and Gabe Adoff for their encouragement and wisdom. From the onset of the project I had to two goals: to get to know the state of Oregon better and to create a collection of poems that both showed and explained my relationship with it. I know that I succeeded with the first half of my goal. The second part is where you, the reader, come in. I hope as you travel the routes I traveled, stop in the places I stopped, and get out of the car to look around, this collection will both take you there for a moment, and make you want to create your own routes around Oregon. —Sid Miller November 2008


Route 1

Pendleton I’ve missed the Round-Up by six months and now can’t find a better way to pass the time than to snoop around this old fire, kick at the soot and wonder about timing. She turned on the popcorn maker and forgot. Later the half-block was gone—the shoe repair and coffee bean shops, the East Oregon Symphony’s office and the home away from home for the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Fire symbolizes the end, or at best the beginning, and here I am, smack dab and happy in the middle. And I can’t think of any better way to stay here than to watch a man on a bull for eight-point-six seconds, so focused on grip and posture, relaxed in order to not let go.


La Grande For six days I haven’t shaved and behind me, inside the pharmacy, my wife’s in line with bubblegum and a pregnancy test. Skilled masonry lines this main road, old buildings with details now seen only for profit. Eighty years ago the population peaked and these works of art no longer house man’s necessities, just coffee and dumbbells. Some years ago my hair ran down past my shoulders. Before I met her, my wife was pierced in more places than one can mention in this town. We’ll stay here longer than we should. We understand how easy it is to change, yet how hard it is to grow.


Baker City All the churches and the mountains to the west and the tallest building in Eastern Oregon on sale for a cheap price and the happiness of holding your hand as we walked at sunset under the old-fashioned black-and-white street signs and past the ten-foot-high wagon wheel is all part of it—that dream, that script, that in just a moment might change in a major way when you walk out of the bathroom here tonight in our room on the third story of the one-hundred-and-eighteen-year-old Geiser Grand Hotel, where just a bit ago we sat downstairs and drank bourbon and listened to horrible smooth jazz, and spoke about the black beans in the shrimp and lobster sauce that we had for dinner and about the woman from Hong Kong who served it to us, anything but what was on our minds and weighing us down, that little stick, that little modern freight train of knowing, that harbinger of the whole shebang, the one that’s now in your hand, under the place where you sit, being soaked with our fates, the decision of more bourbon or none at all, of who and what we’ll become, of what we can’t predict.


Nyssa A damsel in metaphysical distress, she forever looks out from the second story of the old Hotel Western and stares back past the Green Lantern Saloon onto Main Street. If you suppose her place, red drapes behind, painted brick housing you in, you’d crave everything, give anything, just to turn right and gaze at the water towers, the strip of grass and the Fort Boise Produce building. And while it’s easy to assume her gaze, her thoughts can only be guessed at. But one would suspect Saint Gregory, his notion of the third and final stage, where after the initial darkness of ignorance, followed by a spiritual illumination, one returns to darkness, because of the mind’s contemplation of a God that cannot be comprehended, who has stuck her in a window, in a nearly forgotten place, surrounded by fools who point and wonder, completely void of any cowboy spirit.


Burns Easy to eavesdrop—your window rolled down, no engines in earshot, the gas station attendant and his beer-drinking buddy almost shouted. At the mention of the movie star’s name, his face came quickly—anal-retentive travel writer, middle-aged drug addict, et al. Now you’ve driven for an hour and sincerely believe that there can’t be anything else. Perpendicular to nowhere and north of nothing, this town is dead from the sun. They said that he lives on the edge of town, where you hoped to see him with a Rottweiler on a dusty road or just out of the market, like any man with a bag of steaks. But not only have you not seen him, you haven’t seen much of anything else. And the next time his face flickers at two in the morning, you’ll attempt to look past the makeup and lens to get it.


John Day Bourbon should always pour freely. So when the chubby little bartender trickles ours from the bottle into a jigger and then over the ice, it’s a bad sign. Craving a steak for days, we walked up and down the main drag, looked and smelled. Blinded by neon and unnerved by uniform, we settled here, as the big screen TV flickered in the background. When the osprey touched down on the river’s surface, grabbed the trout clean and bolted for the trees to pick at the still-live meat, we smiled. Our meat will be out before our second drink, even though the first were only two sips long. I could describe it now: the lack of flavor, the stringy texture, the clump of previously frozen vegetables that will cower in the corner. Not too long ago there were cowboys and miners around here. They wouldn’t have settled for this shit. They would’ve stood up and walked out.


Shoetree To leave home, drive the desolate 20 and pull off here, to do what’s been done so often isn’t so hard to understand. Never a small town kid, Jack soon stares beyond the shoes and highway toward Monument Peak. As a new pair takes flight he returns again to the shoes. It would be easy to take a picture, much harder to make a list. As he stands with his back to the Malheur River, he suspects neither choice is right. But Jack’s never been good with choices, chiefly those concerned with what comes and more often goes. His favorites have new laces and worn tread.


John Day Fossil Beds The sequence owes its existence to andesitic, dacitic, and rhyolitic eruptions from vents in the Cascade Range. We haven’t seen a person in hours. I do not trust this solitude. The surface is overlain by drab bluish-green tuffaceous claystones and siltstones, fine-grained airfall sediment that altered on land. The color of the landscape makes us look ill. Numerous paleosol horizons are indicated by rhyolites, burrows and other invertebrate traces. We stand on the upper edge of a valley, behind us are skeletons. The fossil record includes: rodents, oreorodents, peccaries, horse, dicerathere rhinoceros, small canids, tapirs and bear dogs. Our solitude will haunt them.


Route 2

Scappoose But the Center! Sometimes it was gigantic, painful, raw and false, it extended from one side of creation to the other, there was no telling where it was, it was everywhere. —Paul Bowles,The Sheltering Sky

I can’t find the center. I’d prefer to start there, work outwards, walk along the railroad tracks and come to a thirty-foot red cylinder with a red electric light on top, that they called—get this— Peace Candle of the World. It would make no sense. Further west there’d be torn wrapping paper, a doll’s head, an insincere note inside a birthday card signed “Aunt Rose” and four half-burned candles. I’d put the doll’s head on my finger, melt the candles from the bottom, place them on the tracks and relight the wicks. We’d call them, The Crusade Candles of Vacuity.


St. Helens The Columbia is gray. Like Jack, it too often reflects. Someday he hopes to miss the clouds. But as the wind whips west and the water laps up hard up against the marina, such a day is hard to imagine. He needs not to look behind him to realize progress. The chop saw cuts two-by-fours, drywall’s nailed up. The lot to his right is graded, barbed wire keeps it smooth. He might someday stand on this same spot and not see the water nearing. And even though the old courthouse is just to his left, he finds no place within him to judge. The future also on his mind. Across the river the sand bar and its dormant trees are the most beautiful shade of brown. The clouds have assured this.


Astoria The bridge descends two hundred feet to run the top of the water. Next to it: train tracks that crawl for just a few yards, then sink to the sea—never to reach the opposite shore. Maybe they did once, then gave up. It’s easy to understand. When no cars pass on the street and the gulls quiet and the wind halts briefly, traffic can be heard from the bridge above. It can also be felt, though passengers are never seen. The train tracks say nothing to those who seek answers, but blab to the idiots who step on the soaked wooden slats. They speak in Finnish. I am not Finnish, nor do I speak the language, no matter how quickly I sink.


Seaside If nothing else reminds you, the smell of the air will—when half the shops are boarded and the Tilt-A-Whirl is under tarp—the salt remains, pungent, obnoxious. Five teenagers play pinball, old folk spoon a clam chowder too thick— but nobody sits at the horseshoe bar. Bare skin barred by cold, the cold is far more than you’ll care to admit when you stand in short sleeves on the wet, too-wet sand, kicking at the heaps of seaweed—watching for the sun that will never break through. It won’t be like your dream, at least not how you dreamt it—more like that kite above you, having drifted so far from your hands—at the mercy of the wind’s discretion, full of color, oddly shaped, airborne, yet disappointing.


Lincoln City It’s too early on a Tuesday morning for any movement in the smallest divided lot of the strip mall, otherwise known as the Baptist church. But at the free-standing building next door, where cats lick their paws out back in the first shafts of sunlight, there’s already a line. Their coiffed hair shielded from the threat of morning drizzle by rain bonnets, the old ladies in their matching housecoats all have something special in mind—a stew or chowder, a hunk of smoked salmon, or even just a quarter pound of bay shrimp to dunk into Thousand Island and eat by the forkful. Cars stream behind them, while the guy behind the counter practices patience—hungover, the skin under his new barbed wire tattoo itches like crazy. Above, Barnacle Bill stares blankly. His image—neckerchief, pipe and sailor’s hat—does not quite fit that of a holy man, yet it’s he who they’re assembled before.


Oh Bill, provider of tasty crustaceans and fish, provider of purpose, provider of tasteless crackers to crumble. Oh Bill, provider of hope and of salt. Oh, Bill.


Newport Because men still work hard here, she stands in the shade of the old tin building whose door is left wide open. And since she’s scared of the other and still shoots a Canon AE-1, everything goes slower—set the F-stop and then focus. The tuna are dumped on the table and the men wield knives in gloved hands. They slit and pull, toss the fish into one bucket, guts in another. Others take shots of the grumpy sea lions or the bay shrimp cleaned and dumped into trucks. The time that she lingers makes them uneasy. They’re not an attraction and tell me so with raised eyebrows. I know, I nod, but this isn’t my shot, it’s my wife’s, talk to her.


Route 3 

Albany Now that you’ve hit the streets blocked and roped off for the antique sale, it’s too late. An hour ago you would’ve joined them and searched for something you didn’t need, but wanted on your bookcase to help you pretend you were somewhere else at some different time. An hour ago you were twenty blocks away, seated on some curb, where your stare was divided between an alley where a hunched man picked cigarette butts from broken glass and an open window nearly blocked by beer cans and pizza cardboard. The only light came from a television that flickered off the aluminum. And while a ‘20s hand mixer might look good on your kitchen shelf, you’ve sadly just now begun to realize that it’s the wrong kind of thing to collect. If you were a little smarter, you would’ve snagged a High Life can from the open window,


then turned the corner to fill it with glass, to rattle at night and fill the quiet.


Corvallis Favorable wind patterns assure that this will be the state’s only city that survives nuclear war. Currently, there is little comfort in this fact. And thank God there’s little comfort in prayer—this county with the lowest church attendance per capita in the country.

It’s said that this is one of the top thirteen cities in America to be a vegetarian, although the numbers seem impossible to quantify. Any other season would mean vegetables right here, this the spot of the farmers’ market. But today is cold and almost a new year. There are no students, vegetarians, atheists, or post-apocalyptic soldiers—just this awful wind, unflappable, full of bad news.


Philomath You don’t mind the wind or to walk for that matter, but today you wish you had someone next to you, a voice to override the wind’s howls and remind you to walk in its direction. A man to explain the flipped car on the side of the road—who crawled out of it and what he drank that night. He might confirm the CD&J’s claim of having “the best bacon in town.” A woman to describe Speech Camp, and how her son spends two hours a day there because he stutters. You’d not only hear her stories about the Meet’n Place Tavern, but take her there yourself. Because of the wind there is dust. Because of the dust the sidewalks are empty. It’s on your skin and in your eyes. Eventually you’ll tear. The women in cars will shake their heads, the men will mumble the word pansy.


Veneta There’ve been plenty of lists like this: mitten, television set frame, fireplace, one metal wheel from an old-fashioned tricycle, soot, ash, burnt lumber. As you shove yours into your back pocket, you know yours is no different from the dozen others written by those who stopped here. You pass the empty Laundromat that smells of bleach, the tiny park where the man swings his daughter by her arms. At the church turned coffee shop, the stained glass colors the morning light colors you know nothing of. When you sit down with your coffee and pull out your list, you add a couple new words, abstract ones.


Eugene My twelve-year-old dog and I, a man of thirty-two, sit on the lawn amidst young women who disregard me quickly after catching me leering at their taut and tan legs. The young men never regard me at all. I’m jealous of everyone. It’s the end of summer. Sometimes the end of one thing means the beginning of another, but not always. Soon the students will clear. The professors will start their lectures. My dog and I will get up and find another place. My parents had a piano shipped across the country when I was five years old. It was set up in an unused room. They could not play a note, nor did they encourage me to. I never even had the interest to sit and bang on the keys.


Portland I. By the bourbon on her breath you will understand equations mathematical, those involving variables, no value ever constant, no number itself. By the black bra slung over the back of the dining room chair you will return, deny the logic of calculus, rely on that of the salivary glands, the far-off scent of a charring porterhouse. Sometime between the collapse of sleep and divisor of day, you might wake from your own restlessness, use the inexact angle of shadows to render the sweat from her skin and coax the air back down. II. Today you walk the bridges of Portland: Steel, Burnside, Morrison and Hawthorne, east on one, west on another. Naturally there is a drizzle and a point in the afternoon when you want to stop, rest, but—unnaturally—you don’t. You walk the tightrope of separation, find the Willamette below moves at one speed, traffic at another, thoughts at one totally distinct—without the crutch of linear movement. By the time you return to your car you are more than damp from perspiration, your feet sore, your ideas of motion awash. When the engine turns over you don’t require more thought, home inevitable, the route etched in the pavement. 36

III. Dirt stains on the knees of your jeans serve as indication, but the ritual dressed in slippers that glide across the carpet offer little else. You stand, the coffee’s steam fogs the sliding glass door. Beyond, the arugula flowers, the tomatoes have split, the roots of the green onions—the size of cipollinis, the bed, this other kind, the one that nearly broke you— has filled in with weed—criminals, or more accurately, con-men. IV. You were taught to never go anywhere without nouns—abstraction is a blind man in the desert. You make a list: long legs, oysters, jungle gym, lipstick, on and on, each image to evoke memory, each one to be slowly crossed off. There’s a headache that comes from the weight of concrete. You let it, put your head down on your arms, let the woman next to you try to nudge you back up. But already it’s too late, it has started; you’re afloat, on some nondescript wave of theory (love, hate, etc.) nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. For our sake you begin to drool, for yours, we let you alone, to float on, to the infinite, or some other such disallowed place.


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